DALLAS – In the final two minutes of Thursday's 95-92 loss to the Mavericks, the Cleveland Cavaliers gave NBA fans a glimpse of what's keeping them from taking the next step to the elite level.
The Cavs had battled and hung in against the league's best club for 46 minutes, riding the spectacular LeBron James' 39 points to stay close. When Avery Johnson decided to take the ball out of LeBron's hands in those final two minutes, sending three defenders at him, this is what happened on consecutive possessions: a missed three-pointer by Donyell Marshall, another Marshall missed three and a missed three by Sasha Pavlovic. All wide open looks, and nothing to show for them.
Finally, in the closing seconds and his team down three points, James was fouled on a hard drive to the hoop. The 68-percent foul shooter bricked both shots, and after Cleveland rebounded the second miss, LeBron clanged two potential game-tying three-point attempts in the closing seconds. Game over.
That two-minute sequence pretty much summed it up for the Cavaliers. LeBron is an amazing talent – a guy who can carry his team for long stretches of a game – but he doesn't have enough help around him. And he's not quite ready to close games out by himself.
That's why Danny Ferry tried so hard to deal for Mike Bibby at the trading deadline. Bibby would have taken plenty of pressure off James with his point guard skills and his ability to make big shots. Without a true playmaker on the roster, James is the one who constantly has to create offense for Cleveland. James is so talented that he needs to be on the receiving end of plays.
Despite all their deficiencies, the Cavs are the second-best team in the East at 33-25. (Maybe that's an indictment of the Eastern Conference more than anything). But what's important to note is how young this franchise is.
Dan Gilbert is a new owner. Ferry is a young general manager. James is still just 22 years old. Daniel Gibson, the starting point guard, is a rookie. And Mike Brown is in his second season as coach. If you know NBA history, you know that it takes time to build a franchise. Dallas is one win away from its seventh consecutive 50-win season, but it wasn't until last year that it became a true title contender. The normal progression for a team to advance to a championship level takes many years.
Internal growth is critical for Cleveland – particularly James' late-game shooting, which has been a problem. As gifted as he is, he hasn't shown the ability to close games like Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant. But more importantly, James will need better personnel around him.
Aging veterans like David Wesley, Damon Jones, Marshall and Eric Snow will have to be phased out. Zydrunas Ilgauskas can still be effective at times, and Larry Hughes, when healthy, can add depth and defense. But a vast overhaul needs to take place in the next few years.
A playmaking point guard must be added, along with better shooters and another big man. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, this summer will not be an easy time to start the process – they don't have a pick in the upcoming draft.
Eventually the change will occur, and Cleveland will become an elite team. James is too good a player for that not to happen. Ferry is very bright, and he works for an owner who is willing to spend money to build a good team. The problem is that, with James, the expectations are enormous.
But as those last two minutes of the Dallas game showed, things aren't going to change overnight for the Cavaliers. This is a work in progress.